Reflections on Exploration in Elden Ring

I’ve been playing Elden Ring now for a solid 50 hours. I’ve made a decent amount of progress in that time, completing main story content in Limgrave, Liurnia, Caelid, and Lyndelle to earn four of the game’s Great Runes. My first impressions of the game were primarily focused on how the game compared to my other FromSoft Souls experience, Bloodborne. When I played Bloodborne I was able to see the skeleton of something I could enjoy, but there was a lot of friction that prevented me from being able to fully appreciate the experience. Elden Ring removed that friction and so I’ve been able to dive fully into the experience. So naturally the next thing to stand out to me during my play time has been the exploration. Elden Ring is an open world game, and a natural result of that structure is that part of the experience of the game is focused on discovering new things as you blaze a trail into parts unknown. In today’s article I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the game’s exploration: how I’ve approached it, what parts I’ve been impressed by, and which ones I have felt were a bit lacking.

Elden Ring does away with the traditional quest markers you see in a lot of open world games. Once you get murdered by the opening boss and make your way out of the tutorial cave to the platform on Limgrave called The First Step, the only direction you really have is the guidance of grace. Grace is the bonfire system of this particular Souls outing, a momentary place of safety where you can rest, reassign certain aspects of your build like flash usage or equipped Runes or Ashes, and spend your runes to level up your character. Some of these stopping points have a second function: a faint light pointing off in a specific direction. The guidance of grace points to Great Runes or at least to locations you’ll have to explore in order to find the Great Runes. In other words, if you want to mainline story content then finding grace that offers guidance and following that guidance is a pretty decent way to go about it.

Fortunately, that’s not the only tool to help point players in the right direction. Like many open world games, your lines of sight serve as useful guides. Off in the distance you see a towering fortress, a glowing tree, or a strange ball of fire that periodically burns for a few moments and then winks out, and those things make you say “oh sick, I want to go there.” One of my favorites that I’m sure many other players share was my first mausoleum. I heard the mausoleum bell before I saw the moving island and immediately set about looking for the source of the noise. When I saw the massive thing moving across the landscape, the ground shaking with every step, I knew I had to figure out how in the world to climb that thing. The reward didn’t even really matter at that point – I’ve never actually used a mausoleum for its intended purpose but just the experience of discovering it and figuring out how to climb it was interesting enough.

Just looking at the orb of fire filled me with madness, so naturally I had to go touch it.

This leads to another tool for guidance provided by the game. Many of the games shops feature notes that can be purchased for runes. These notes contain information about a point of interest like the wandering mausoleums, or the location of key items like the flask of wondrous physick. Buying a note expands your knowledge of the world and gives you hints on how to proceed, including where to explore. This expands further to other item descriptions, too. I reached Lyndelle by taking the Grand Lift of Dectus, which required me to locate two pieces of the lift’s medallion. I found the first medallion piece pretty early in the game, but looking at the item description gave me a name for the location of the second half. When I eventually discovered that fort in the Dragonbarrow, I was able to prioritize it so I could unlock the lift and open up a whole new region of the map to explore. NPCs too can share this sort of guidance, advising you on where to go and very occasionally even putting marks on your map to guide your way.

That brings us then to the map, the final tool for guidance in exploring Elden Ring. (Note: in single player. There’s a whole conversation to be had regarding using messages from other players to guide your way, but I am playing offline and so cannot comment on that aspect of the experience in an informed manner.) Elden Ring’s map helps to point you to interesting locations in a couple of key ways. One of the most important is that many of the game’s regions (not all, unfortunately) show on the map where to find the map for that region. You see, your map in Elden Ring is blank and only shows sites of grace and the vague shape of the continent until you discover a region map, which then adds important features like roads and topography. Picking up a map segment fills in the important details, and the game tells you where to do this in many major areas like Limgrave, east Liurnia, Caelid, and the Dragonbarrows. You can then use these completed maps to identify places like towers, swamps, or ruins that you want to mark with a beacon and then go explore. The map in my opinion is the weakest of all these forms of guidance – the way topography is represented upon it is very misleading and there have been many times where I thought two locations were on the same elevation where they were not, or that one location was at a higher elevation than another when it was in fact lower. Elden Ring may have added jumping but vertical exploration is still very limited, meaning that this often led me to having to wander significant distances to try to find a ramp up or a series of platforms leading down. These have been my least favorite parts of exploring, and I’ve found myself missing the free climbing and the gliding in Breath of the Wild.

Speaking of jumping, one of my biggest complaints about Elden Ring is the commission of a Cardinal Sin of GamingTM. The Cardinal Sins of GamingTM include the terrible crimes of stealth segments in non-stealth games and precision platforming in non-platformers. Elden Ring technically does both of these, but the stealth sequences aren’t really a big deal. Stealth is never essential to progressing and the stealth mechanic works pretty well for the type of game that Elden Ring is. The platforming though…dear god. There are multiple sequences in this game where to traverse a series of jumping challenges, you need to use Torrent, your horse. Now I love Torrent and appreciate what Torrent brings to the Souls experience, but for the love of god this is the most skittish horse I have ever seen in a video game. Torrent has no traction and the slightest touch of the control stick sends him flailing along the ground like a cartoon character sliding on an ice patch, limbs flying everywhere while the goofy thing tries to settle down. The double jump covers a lot of space but its momentum often carries Torrent well beyond where he needs to go. I’ve had some hard bosses in this game but nothing has killed me as much as the need to do precision platforming as part of an experience where that was the last thing on the minds of the developers. I’ve enjoyed figuring out some of the climbing challenges that could be completed on foot, but every time I realize Torrent is required for one I groan in agony.

My face when I realize I have to platform on Torrent

One final note on something Elden Ring does very well with regards to exploration: sometimes this game blows your mind by expanding the map in ways you didn’t imagine. There are multiple warp gates in the game, some you take intentionally and others you stumble on accidentally courtesy of a treasure trap. But there have been multiple times where I’ve thought I had a pretty good grasp of the size of the game’s map and then a teleport told me just how much there was still to go. Caelid and the Dragonbarrows are a known entity to me now, but the first time I teleported to the beast clergyman and it was more east than I had ever been or knew how to go, it really showed me just how much there was to the game. I had a similar experience when a chest teleported me to the divine bridge in Lyndelle, showing me there was going to be in the future some way for me to get north of Limgrave despite the sea being in the way. My other big surprise was seeing just how detailed the game’s underground is. I’d been in multiple caves over the course of my journey when I first discovered the Siofra Well, but seeing an entire city hidden under the well was mind boggling. And then later when I went to the well in Liurnia and found a map, discovering that there’s so much underground in the game that there are entire maps dedicated to making sense of it – it truly shows the massive scale on which Elden Ring is operating. Moments like this fuel the fires of exploration and make you want to dig around every nook and cranny the game has to offer.

One aspect of the open world experience is not just the ability to go anywhere, but the ability to take on challenges in whatever order you please. Much of Elden Ring’s main story content is optional and the world is littered in little caves or forts that you really can ignore if you want to. Side quests can be progressed without even knowing that a side quest exists – this happened for me when I explored the aforementioned Siofra Well without having met Ranni the Witch or Blaidd the half-wolf warrior, who are meaningfully tied to the location from a story perspective. While some locations – such as Liurnia’s divine tower – are locked behind progress in a particular quest line, for the most part you can do events any time provided you have the stats and skills to handle the opposition in those locations. This requires you as the player to be able to determine a logic to your exploration: when do I focus on story? When do I focus on side content? Where do I go next when there is no obvious guidance of grace to push me in a particular direction? Elden Ring is a very self-guided experience and it requires some decision making on how you want to approach what the game offers.

In my case, the approach I’ve ultimately settled on is the path of least resistance. I do story content as long as it feels achievable with my current build; if I hit a wall, I’ll explore side dungeons and defeat optional bosses to level up and get better gear to then equip me for returning to the story. When I find side locations, I’ll complete them if the boss there feels possible for me to beat at my current level. If my attacks barely do any damage or I get one-shot by a boss’s basic attacks, then I know I’m in over my head and I find somewhere else to go. At the beginning of the game in Limgrave, this lead me to go through many visits to Stormveil Castle as I would make it to chokepoints, choke, and then go explore the region nearby to upgrade my character before returning to try again. Once I got out of Limgrave though I’ve actually found the main story content to be easier than side content for the most part. I completed the Academy of Raya Lucaria before doing any other questlines in Liurnia, and did the same with helping Millicent in Caelid as well as exploring the palace in Lyndelle. So for most regions of the game, I’ve ended up following the guidance of grace first and then filling in the map later after gaining enough levels to be ready for the more challenging side missions in the areas surrounding the story.

The moment of contemplation that precedes a bad decision

The result of this approach is that I’ve unlocked the endgame earlier than I anticipated or intended, as that ended up being the path of least resistance for my recent efforts. Lyndelle was a much safer and easier to navigate region than the Dragonbarrows and I found a lot of the side battles or dungeons in Caelid to be more challenging than the Royal Capital. I know there are multiple Great Runes left for me to find but I have no idea how in the world to reach them, and there are regions of the world that I know exist due to teleportation (such as the Crumbling Lands) but that I haven’t been able to find naturally or been able to navigate with my current build. So right now, the path of least resistance seems to be sending me towards the conclusion of Elden Ring. Perhaps the Forbidden Lands will be enough of a jump in difficulty that I’ll need to redirect my attention to side content for awhile, but for now I’m just hoping that I’ll still be able to explore in the postgame.

My time exploring Elden Ring has been a fun one so far. I’ve been particularly impressed with how the game has continued to find ways to surprise me with the size and scope of its world. I’ve not really found myself missing quest markers thanks to the multiple other forms of guidance that exist in the game, and I’ll be interested to see what other developers learn from the open world structure of Elden Ring after its rousing success. It’s not a perfect experience – you can really tell that this is FromSoft’s first outing with platforming mechanics and with trying to make a legible map for players to read. But overall, I’ve found a lot to appreciate about exploration in Elden Ring, and I’m excited to continue that exploration into the final reaches of the game’s world.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on Exploration in Elden Ring

Add yours

  1. It seems we both enjoyed, and disliked the same suite of things across our time playing Elden Ring. There was so many times where I sat looking up or down a vertical space going, “I wish I could just go there”. It probably didn’t help that I’d played BotW 6 months prior so the experience of looking at something, and deciding to go their immediately with a variety of different movement skills was still fresh in my head. By comparison, Elden Ring felt very restrictive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with that, it definitely felt restricting. You can tell that FromSoft is accustomed to making very authored experiences from the design; even though the game is open world there was pretty much always a “right way” to get somewhere and there are a lot of locations that are only reachable from a very specific approach on the map. Took me forever to find the volcano region because you have to enter it from just the right bridge out of the capitol.

      Liked by 1 person

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